Pointing to his tiny plot along the Zambezi River in central Mozambique, Tome Lande explains how the maize plants at the top of the sloping riverbank withered away during the drought, and those at the bottom washed away during the floods. His entire crop is gone, and he now collects washed up algae to fill his stomach.
"We just gathered algae from the river's edge to make a kind of soup. I don't know if it's nutritious, but it's [all] we can find to eat," Lande, a farmer from Tambara district in Mozambique's central Manica Province, told IRIN. "I also gathered some wild fruits to survive the hunger."
Lande is one of the 300,000 Mozambicans who, despite a near record 1.878 million metric ton maize harvest projected for 2010/11, will require food assistance until April 2011, according to the latest joint assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
Some 50 km downstream from Lande's plot, in the district of Chemba, Daniel Mustiço surveyed his washed out plot beside the Zambezi and said, "I have had a stomach ache for days now due to lack of food." The Zambezi cuts through the centre of the country before spilling into the Indian Ocean.
Drought in early 2010 "was then followed in many places by heavy rains ... causing some localized flooding," the joint crop and food security assessment report of 12 August said.
"In the floodplain of the Zambezi and on islands revealed at low water levels, it is the normal practice of farmers to grow late crops on residual moisture. This year, however, much of this planting was swept away by surges of high water resulting from releases from the Cahora Bassa reservoir, which was unusually full because of heavy rain further upstream," the report noted.
Mustiço said he had "harvested nothing - what little we were going to collect on the island in the river was taken by the water released when the floodgates opened at the hydroelectric dam. We are eating algae as a last resort."
A statement released by the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric power station said it would continue releasing 4,500 cubic metres per second to ease pressure on the structural integrity of the dam.
"The population lost their first crop due to the [dry spell] and the second destruction [caused by floodwater] has just made life more difficult," said Gilbert Canheze, administrator of Tambara district. "There is little we can do locally to alleviate the hunger due to the levels of poverty in the district."
Hunger in the midst of plenty
Most of Mozambique's 22 million people are expected to meet their basic food requirements, but pockets of food insecurity are affecting an estimated 250,000 people in the centre of the country, and another 50,000 in the south.
"Large differences were observed between regions," the report said. In the north production was up by 12 percent on 2009, while in the south it dropped by 38 percent, and by 4 percent in the central provinces.
The price of maize, the staple food, is mirroring the production discrepancies: in Maputo, the capital, located in the south, 1 kg of maize costs 13.45 meticals (US$0.36); in Nampula, in the north, it costs only 5.71 meticals per kg (US$0.15).
Despite considerable improvements in infrastructure - like the opening of the new bridge across the Zambezi in August 2009, which has greatly increased the movement of commodities from areas of surplus production to those in deficit - transport costs keep prices high.
WFP said it was mobilizing some $5.3 million to buy 6,500 metric tons of food to help meet initial needs. José Carlos, national programme officer for food security and HIV/AIDS at WFP in Mozambique, commented: "Various districts have registered pockets of hunger, but we are not sure how many people have resorted to eating algae to survive."
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